In Search of a Good Critique

Harry Campbell for the Chronicle

February 04, 2013

From the hiring side of the table, we've all seen job candidates who seem to be doing well only to fall flat in one venue: They ace the teaching demo and the dinner meeting, but stumble during the research talk. Perhaps the candidate was disorganized, too strident, or just long-winded and boring. Whatever the cause, the outcome is a strong negative ding when it comes time to vote on the hire.

At that point, professors of kind disposition yearn to call the not-hired candidate and offer advice, as in: "Look, I'm saying this to help you win the next one. ..." Instead, we just notify you in a form letter that it was a tough choice among a pool of "extraordinary" candidates and unfortunately—well, you know what we say. Besides not being hired, the budding scholar is denied a candid and useful critique and so, presumably, repeats the same errors. Everyone who spends some time in academe experiences both sides of that unhappy dyad.

Getting good feedback—that is, astute, useful criticism—is harder than most people think, whether it is for a journal manuscript or a job presentation. Certainly the laws, rules, and protocols of our business, as well as fear of lawsuits, have suppressed the opportunities for, and quality of, good critiques. Culturally, as well, there seems to be a generational change: I notice that my cohort of middle-aged faculty members is more likely to worry about "sounding harsh" than are our seniors.

We are facing a criticism crisis. Never have so many needed good critiques and gotten so few. So whether you are seeking a good pair of eyes for your paper before sending it off to a journal, or looking for an astute evaluation of your interviewing style, consider some ways you can help others help you with sound advice:

Accept that pointed criticism is good for you. The word critique is derived from the Greek kritikos, meaning able to make a judgment. It has, unfortunately, adopted a negative connotation. And truth be told, the last several generations of Americans (including mine) have increasingly been sheltered from anything that might hurt our self-esteem. I still recall an undergraduate who, after getting a low grade in his first writing class, sputtered, "Your job is to tell us how great we are!" He was sincerely outraged, and I think many students (and not a few academics) exhibit a similar resistance to critical evaluation.

Of course, there are malicious negativists out there, in person and online. They are not "critics" in the sense that they are not judging you or your work at all but rather are throwing snarky or caustic comments out to be hurtful, often to compensate for their own failures, obsessions, or insecurities. But the alternative of tuning out, discouraging, or resenting all appraisals of your teaching, research, service, and behavior is dysfunctional for you and for the academic system in general.

Learn to weigh, compare, and contrast criticism. In an earlier column I discussed ways to find good mentors. I stressed that a mentor could be helpful in a given dimension but not be a universal sage: A great researcher might be invaluable for honing the methods section of your dissertation but dispense terrible career advice. Furthermore, "good" does not mean your mentor should always be your biggest fan. Avoid equally those who pour on negativity as well as those who always tell you everything you write is wonderful.

The same instructions apply to criticism. Eventually the truth will out on who is giving you and your work worthy judgments.

What if, however, you need good criticism right now because you're facing a job talk next week, or have an important paper to send out soon? How can you tell if the criticism you're getting is good or bad?

First, good critics have a track record. Talk to other graduate students and probationary faculty members about who is ready, willing, and able to offer cogent advice on which topics. Each of those qualities is crucial. For someone to be truly helpful to you, he or she must have the time to do so. The problem with really good advisers is that their services may have already been taken. The world's best research-methods experts are no help if they are too busy to read your paper.

Second, criticism, like a good job reference letter, is detailed. If your critic's response to your paper draft is "Great!," maybe you have indeed produced a sterling piece of research. More likely, he (a) didn't have time to read it in depth but didn't want to say "no" to your request; (b) didn't like it but wants to spare your feelings; or (c) just is not expert enough to offer helpful comments. The more detail a critic offers, the more likely she cared enough to pay attention and knew what she was talking about.

Third, good critics fully review your work. Colleagues can't react to your research talk if they have heard only 10 minutes of it. The best critics absorb the entire effort and don't just offer a drive-by utterance.

Last, good criticism is mission-oriented. A critique of your research presentation should be practical about what is to come. Are your PowerPoint slides too busy? Does your research program sound too ambitious, so that the audience might find reason to worry that you won't finish your dissertation in time to start the job? What you need is the proverbial "news you can use." Are you getting it?

Reward the good kind of criticism. Some people invite criticism, and some exude defensiveness at any remark they perceive as "negative." The former learn to suffer through nasty or pointless comments, but the latter are much more likely to flop since they never get any perspectives other than their own. In the piquant words of Robert Burns: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!" Make sure trusted friends and advisers "gie" good criticism when they can, and thank them for doing so.

To gather helpful insights you must seek them out. A graduate student I know was an expert at that. She identified people in her program who had won respect in certain areas (proofreading, career counseling, or teaching). She approached each one and asked for help, building a network of mutual support. She was gracious in her appreciation and offered a quid pro quo of services where she might help them. Her method worked: She received good advice, and people felt rewarded by helping her—a behavioral-­conditioning tactic invaluable in her long career to come.

Avoid the selectivity bias. An immense amount of research in social cognition describes human beings as selective data shoppers. We have abundant powers for ignoring, forgetting, or misinterpreting information that may seem to contradict our view of reality. To avoid the trap of hearing only criticism that is positive or that confirms our own views, consider some countertactics.

Never get just one person's opinion, and try to vary your judges. For example, the people who will read your teaching-philosophy statement will range from a graduate student on the search committee to the chair of the department. So mix it up in choosing critics.

Also, to avoid excess flattery, (gently) push people to be tougher on you. If they respond without any suggestions for improvement, don't be afraid to press: "I'm glad you liked my conclusions section. I was a little worried that the ending sounded flat and formulaic. Do you think it could be punchier?" In time, you will convince those you trust that you want to hear exactly what they think and not just have your ego inflated.

Start early. Ideally, you should begin in graduate school to establish a reputation as someone "who takes criticism well." Scout out and form mentor-protégé relationships with respected elders and supportive friendships with positive, achieving peers. All the while you can make clear—in attitude and deed—that you really appreciate honest, lucid, and insightful advice.

Give as well as get. We all discover duringour teaching assistantships that one of the best ways to learn a subject is to teach it. Likewise, the path to figuring out how to inculcate a trusted cadre of good critics and get the most out of their comments is by becoming a good critic yourself.

Research-methods classes are startingpoints. It is common procedure for the professor teaching that course to assign both seminal and new essays, reports, or books—depending on what discipline you are in—and ask you to study them from the point of view of a reviewer. Volunteering to serve as a reviewer for your national disciplinary association can also help. In addition, attend every job talk you can of visiting job candidates. Afterward ask others who were there, especially faculty members, for their impressions. What did you see and hear, and how well did that match the "sense of the faculty"?

In short, practice the art of being a good critic, and eventually you will become one—of your own work and actions as well as those of others.

Building that sort of a reputation can only help your career. Even in this age of hypertrophic recommendation letters, the line "She is unusually mature for a new scholar; she really takes criticism well, learns, and grows from it" stands out. We shouldn't be hiring junior faculty members and letting them sink or swim on their own. But it follows that the folks we like to hire can hear good criticism, accept it, and move upward and onward.

What to do when you discover that the criticism you're getting is malicious, inept, or misdirected—especially when it is coming from people with power over your career—will be the subject of my next column.

David D. Perlmutter is director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a professor, Starch Faculty Fellow, and International Programs Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. He writes the Career Confidential advice column for The Chronicle. His book "Promotion and Tenure Confidential" was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.